The other day I ran across an article I had saved from 2004 that seems so relevant in this season of political and personal unhappiness, animosity and estrangement. The author was writing about politics in 2004, but his concerns for a deeper source of happiness and emotional stability than political power reminds us to take a deep breath and keep all things in perspective.
In A Politics of Gratitude, Stephen L. Carter says,
Like a lot of people, I am no big fan of what electoral politics has become in America. One reason is the appalling rhetoric. As this political season heats up, one can reasonably expect the members of the party out of power to talk about everything that has gone wrong in the country under its current leadership, just as in the 2000 election cycle, when the other party devoted themselves to the same exhausting nonsense. The announcement that the sky is falling is nothing new in our political life, of course, and it plays extraordinarily well, even among voters in a land that has almost everything.
…Yet when a politician, or an activist, or a television commentator tells us that the land is actually a mess, that things are getting worse, we perk up and listen, for a distinct public pessimism is the mark of our era. Good news we greet with skepticism. Bad news we believe at once (Christianity Today, March 2004, p. 74).
He grieves “the unfortunate fact that interest groups on the left and the right alike only make money by shouting about the horrors to be battled” (p. 74).
Although this election is unique for many reasons and most everybody laments that we are so divided by our important and passionate differences, no matter how things are resolved, we still need to hold each other and our differences in balance. We do this with grace, love, and the character to become a people and a nation that survives over the long haul. We must seek fair mindedness, willingness to listen, commitment to our neighbors, and the good sense of knowing when judgment and restraint wins over passion and anger.
As to “the question of why we behave this way—and what America might be like if we should stop” (p. 74), Carter (2004) introduces a book by Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Easterbrook (2003) argues that we may be living in the Golden Age of the Western world, with amazing progress and advancing material conveniences every generation. Yet we seem less happy, content, or quietly pleased in our daily lives. Easterbrook’s guess at the reason for this is “the discontinuity between prosperity and happiness” (p. 84). Carter adds, “Optimism and joy, in short, do not come from our material possessions” (p. 74).
A Shift in Attitude
Easterbrook proposes a shift in our attitude: less focus on self-interest and more daily awareness of gratitude. We are not isolated consumers with isolated freedoms and rights. We are born to live in a context that is utterly dependent on many other people. There are those who have gone before us to toil, create, and build a world that benefited us even before we were born, and those who are very different from us but perform tasks and create environments that support and enrich our lives. Each woman and man is connected to each other, and how we live our lives should be sensitive to and respect the others in this life that support our very being. That “awful person” from the other political party might shape your life next week in some coincidence of fate or become a dear friend down the road. So a sense of gratitude for all that others do and have done for us is a context for our happiness, and we would be happier if we humbly recognize that very few individuals are ever likely to be our true enemy.
Carter quotes the Roman orator Cicero: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” He asserts that a mature person “does not dwell on what she lacks….but on understanding what truly matters in life.” He says “It may seem difficult to win passionate votes on the ground that life is good….but if we feel the need to solve problems, why should we not work for the betterment of others instead of ourselves?” (p. 74).
A Call to Action
Since we are all going through this great divide of political sectarianism and interpersonal alienation, let us all strive more diligently to humbly hold the reality of our dependence on each other, and the work and contributions of all other persons past and present. Let us strive to be able to hold, at once, both our political differences and our respect and caring for that other person in front of us who holds different views. What truly matters in life is way more profound than the animosity we are now living through. Let us strive to live daily in an attitude of gratefulness, a spirit of abundance, and a loving regard for every other person, even our political opposites.
Now, that would be an election worth remembering: One in which the candidates, instead of focusing our attention on ourselves, reminded us of the requirement that we love our neighbors; and reminded us, too, that our neighborhood is the world (p. 74).